Testing and accountability are very hot topics in education today.
However, I doubt any educator disagrees that one of the most important thing we do is nurture learners. Learners feeling inspired to continue learning long after they leave the classroom with skills to pursue learning independently. Tony Wagner, a Harvard Education Specialist who wrote a book entitled “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who will Change the World” seems to agree, “Reimagining schools for the 21st-century must be our highest priority. We need to focus more on teaching the skill and will to learn and to make a difference and bring the three most powerful ingredients of intrinsic motivation into the classroom: play, passion and purpose.” And I cannot think of a better way to do that than through the arts.
I realize that I am preaching to the choir here.
If you are reading this, you are most likely already nurturing lifelong learners by engaging students in art making experiences which encourage risk-taking and curiosity, both important attributes for learners. However, I also know that there is so much pressure out there to raise test scores and that arts advocates often rationalize use of the arts by showing how the arts positively affect the test scores of frequently assessed content areas. In that spirit I share this story.
About 10 years ago I taught a fifth grade class in Massachusetts. The state just added science to that grade level’s battery of state-wide standardized testing. So, my principal brought in a science educator who had been one of the writers of the questions for the test to help our students prepare. She was wonderful – organized, clear, passionate. However, she had one hour and had plans for every minute of that hour. When my students had questions and demonstrated curiosity, she quickly shot them down. There was simply no time. I did my best to follow-up on their questions after our guest teacher left but sometimes the moment had passed and frankly, I had other things I needed to cover too.
One day the idea of a science fair arose.
There was no tradition of doing a science fair with fifth graders at this school and I had not planned for one but my students seemed sincerely interested. I worked out a plan of rigorous deadlines in order to fit everything in by the end of the year and the class agreed to meet them so off they went to develop a scientific question and a plan for answering it. I found it as one of the best things we did that year. Simply, because it revolved around self-directed learning. Each student had the ability to pursue their own area of interest. The energy and motivation they demonstrated over this process was at one of the highest levels it had been all year and was really inspiring for me.
I share this story not because it involves arts integration but because it involves forgetting about the tests and allowing students to pursue their own interests. It’s an example of how rich learning can be when students are intrinsically motivated.
In other words, make art.
As we head into the last few months of the school year, I remind you to stop. Simply, take a deep breath, and remind yourself of the ultimate goal of education. We have no idea what this world will look like when our students leave their formal schooling. Therefore, we educators have a responsibility. We must keep the flame of curiosity alive so our students become lifelong learners equipped to handle anything. As Tony Wagner suggested, the way to do that is to bring “play, passion, and purpose” into the classroom.
Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.